Notes from Quarantine: June 2020

Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
June 2020
Notes from Quarantine:
Quarantine is like sheltering-in-place squared, a more stringent internment. It creates a shift in the scale of things: the very large (i.e., the world) contracts; small things expand. Early one morning I “go for a walk,” which means that I step onto – and most certainly not beyond – the front porch. The sun has come up strong and the world is warm. I stand outside for half-an-hour listening to birdsong. I can’t name them all: there are blue jays and sparrows, a hoot owl and the persistent percussion of woodpeckers. The whole chorus is wonderfully composed, all call-and-response and intricate counterpoint. I stand stock still and listen, absorbed in a state of heightened attentiveness. The porch seems to have expanded, sympathetically, to include more of the natural world within its compass, and my confinement is enlarged by the sound of the birds.

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Quarantine is, among other things, boring. It makes me think of John Berryman’s poem: “My mother told me as a boy / (repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no / Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no / inner resources, because I am heavy bored.”
One response to boredom is to find more things to do; another is to find less. In the monastic tradition of the Desert Fathers, doing more, filling up the time, was considered a form of distraction, when the point was to experience an emptying out, or askesis – the goal of ascetic practice. “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything”: a stern maxim from Abba Moses (fourth century AD). It was a point of monastic seclusion to become adept at relying on one’s inner resources – an arduous task, though no hedge against boredom. The monastic’s cell was a place to remain still and open to divine promptings.

Conceiving of one’s place of quarantine as such a cell, and one’s time there as a type of retreat, is one way to reframe and enliven it – though there are many sorts of cells, carceral as well as monastic. Berryman, as a poet, was intimately familiar with his own custom-made cell: the confines of his imagination, bordered by the four sides of a blank sheet of paper. He sought his promptings there, with a discipline akin to the spiritual athletics of the Desert Fathers. If he found boredom in his cell, he confessed it and made creative use of the experience.
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Quarantine is, among other things, peaceable. It certainly has its moments of contentment, moments of surprising stillness (listening to birdsong on the front porch), moments of consolatory domesticity. One cooks; cleans; takes on long-deferred household tasks, such as the sorting of accumulations of odd stuff into “discard” and “keep” piles. Such satisfying moments are punctuated by spasms of anxiety: How long is this going to go on? And where are the damn test results?
By the time the results arrive (negative!), the symptoms have already abated. I rejoin the rest of the world in that modified form of quarantine called “sheltering in place” and “social distancing” and experience much the same range of feelings as I had in quarantine, and ask many of the same questions: And how much longer will this go on?

Post-quarantine, I continue to mine my inner resources. The pandemic is making monastics of us all.